Wednesday, August 8, 2018

NEH Awards Library $285,000

By Frank Boles

In an announcement made August 8, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) awarded $285,000 to the Clarke Historical Library to continue its work as part of the National Digital Newspaper Program. The Library will use the funds to scan approximately 90,000 newspaper pages that tell the story of “the Arsenal of Democracy,” Detroit and southeastern Michigan during World War II. Several newspaper titles, published between approximately 1941 and 1945, will document the contributions of the metro-Detroit area to the World War II effort as well as the dramatic social transformations that occurred during this period.

During the war Detroit became the showplace of America’s wartime production and productivity. The nation’s automobile industry converted its output from civilian cars and trucks to the weapons of war. In addition to conversion, new facilities were built, such as the Willow Run Bomber plant, then the largest factory in the world under a single roof.  Approximately ten percent of the nation’s wartime output rolled of Detroit area assembly lines.

Detroit factories not only made the weapons that won the war, they also taught manufacturing productivity lessons of great significance. Bomber production is instructive. At the beginning of the war bombers were hand-crafted. If everything went well, about one bomber a day could be built. But everything did not always go well, and even when it did, the hand-crafting that was commonplace in West Coast aircraft production made it difficult to easily interchange parts from one plane to another. By the summer of 1944, Ford’s Willow Run bomber plant was rolling out one bomber an hour, using parts that were fully interchangeable and thus simplifying field maintenance. Similarly, at the beginning of the war, 40mm anti-aircraft guns, known as Borfors guns, took 450 employee-hours to build. By the end of the war, Chrysler Corporation employees had reduced the time needed to assemble the gun to 10 hours.  

Detroit was also a scene of tremendous social change. 700,000 individuals labored in a Detroit, about one-half of whom migrated to the city during the war years. Because so many men were drafted into the Armed Forces, women entered the work force in unprecedented number and in new positions. The social consequences of these many changes were profound.

Racial conflict was the most obvious outcome. By the early 1940s, racially motivated street fights were common. On June 20, 1943, racially-motivated fighting in a municipal park grew into a massive race riot. The violence was not curbed until 6,000 federal troops arrived. Nine Whites and twenty five African Americans were killed in the Riot of 1943. 700 other people were reportedly injured, in what had become one of America’s largest race riots.

The project will document Detroit during World War II through approximately 90,000 pages published by several newspapers, each giving a distinct view of Detroit’s wartime contributions and the challenges. One of the city’s major dailies, the Detroit Times, supplies the overall narrative. Its coverage is supplemented and expanded upon by Detroit’s African-American weekly, the semimonthly union newspaper of the United Automobile Workers, and an industry friendly trade weekly. In addition newspapers from three suburban communities document the war’s effect in unusual settings. One community was located in the heavily industrialized “Downriver” area. Another community that will be documented is the rural area outside Ypsilanti that became the home of the Willow Run bomber plant. The third community, Mt. Clemens, was an area nearby Detroit that was largely rural during World War II, but housed large military training facilities.

This grant builds on experience gained by the Library staff over the last six years through work funded by NEH to digitize Michigan newspapers that have been inputted into the Library of Congress, Chronicling America website . Other newspapers digitized by the Clarke Library can be found at our own website, .